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Film Review


Todd Haynes is a celebrated independent film maker, openly gay, whose films often look back at America in the 1950's. Today we tend to idealize that mid century era, often ignoring some very dark issues. Haynes also tends to romanticize that era, while simultaneously revealing the not so sweet as well, notably the real threat of nuclear war and the red scare, as exploited by such demagogues as Joseph McCarthy, which helped create a pervasive climate of fear and anxiety. Other darkness included the social and cultural conformity expected for all, and the still deep prejudices against blacks, Jews, Asians, and homosexuals.

Haynes is clearly fascinated with this period. Since 1987 he has turned out a film every 3 to 4 years, most relating to that period. His best known is Far From Heaven (2002), a critical and popular success, which tells the story of an upper middle class housewife (a break out role for Julianne Moore) who discovers her husband is gay. Haynes wrote the screenplay and directed, for which he received a large number of awards. Since then, he also dipped into television with Mildred Pierce, his HBO miniseries, which won a number of Emmys.

Carol, Haynes' latest film, is taken from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. Considered by many to be her best work, the novel tells the story of an upper class housewife, Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is divorcing her husband. They have a young daughter but a loveless marriage, partially because her executive husband is so committed to work. Just before Christmas Carol wanders into a department store to buy presents for her daughter. She spots a cute salesgirl with a silly santa hat, and asks her advice for gifts. The salesgirl is Therese, played by Rooney Mara. Therese recommends a train set which Carol buys. She talks with Therese for a few more minutes, then leaves, forgetting her gloves. Each makes an impression on the other. Carol is attracted to Therese's apparent innocence while Therese is fascinated with Carol's elegance, sophistication and sense of self. Therese spots the gloves, but Carol is already gone. So Therese mails the gloves back to the address on the sales receipt. The gloves arrive, clearly love's messenger, and Carol asks Therese to lunch. Carol is secure and commanding, while Therese, young and working class, is somewhat intimidated. Carol orders an unusual lunch dish and Therese orders the same thing. Carol is fascinated by Therese and sees her as: "strange girl; flung out of space." In these scenes Haynes is looking closely at the issues of class as well as sexual attraction. The story line is not always linear. Near the beginning, Carol and Therese are in another restaurant, when a young man spots Therese, and tries to get her to go with him to a party. We learn, much later, of the significance of this scene, discovering that it is a flashback. Much happens in both lives but I don't want to write any spoilers.

It's hard to overstate just how transcendent the acting is here. Even minor characters are good but Blanchett and Mara both put in some of the best performances of their careers. There isn't a great deal of dialogue but their faces are remarkable, expressing loneliness, sadness, fear and love, all masterfully. Their performances are as good as it gets. The camera work is equally outstanding. The period look that Haynes gives all his films is certainly evident here. His cinematographer shot in 16mm, a real throwback, which give the work a less defined image, and more muted coloration. Haynes plays close attention to interiors and costuming of the era, including great jewelry. The clothing is wonderful, and Haynes is careful to dress his characters in a way that emphasizes class differences. Carol wears head turning outfits that command, frequently with stunning broaches. There are many exquisite closeups of both leads, and we often see one in a car with fogged windows, driving or being driven away as they wistfully stare out at us. Sometimes they resemble prisoners being driven to their executions. In fact, the cars themselves are almost dramatic enough to take on personalities. All location shooting was done in Cincinnati, Ohio, which looks like New York in the 50's. So many of the scenes are memorable, made so by Haynes' genius at arrangements. Haynes' keen observation turns what for most would be a trivial event, like the return of the gloves, into something more significant. We watch Therese walk to the mail box, shot from an unusual high camera angle, then a series of delivery trucks, one of which ends up in front of Carol's grand house. Haynes gives us a rich film, with complexity and nuance of character and story. It is very romantic, in the best sense. The visual and cultural are equally sophisticated here. The pacing and tension accelerate as the story progresses, yet with the tension is great passion. Younger viewers may not really understand the loaded nature of homosexuality in that era: hidden, rarely mentioned, and then only in the most pejorative terms. Those exposed usually paid a very high price. The soundtrack is wonderful, an original score with some mid century pop tunes while some scenes sound distinctly like Philip Glass.

I loved this film and intend to see it again. This is Todd Haynes' masterpiece and seems likely to gather a trainload of Oscar nominations including best picture. My guess is that Carol is the film to beat this year. It is a great American film, traditional in format but with a distinctly untraditional story, destined to become a classic. Just opened here this past weekend, but so far only at the Embarcadero and the CineArts in Palo Alto. It will likely open more widely in a few weeks. Screening time: 118 minutes. Have a great Christmas, a good New Year, and see some good films in a theater over the holidays. Just a footnote, but Carol joins Trumbo and Brooklyn to form a trio of excellent films now screening, all set in this period.

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